Watchman Trail in Zion National Park: An easy sunrise hike

View from the Watchman Trail in Zion National Park

Picture this: Steep canyon walls all around you, lighting up with the first morning sun. Panoramic views of red rock country. Desert wildflowers. The Watchman Trail in Zion National Park is an easy way to experience all this and more.

The Watchman hike is an ideal sunrise adventure. You’ll encounter few other people at first light, the trail is easy to follow in the twilight hours, and you don’t even have to get on the shuttle. Plus, the trail is quite exposed, so by hiking first thing in the morning you’ll avoid sunburns and uncomfortable heat.

Read on to find out more about the Watchman Trail!

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Hiking the Watchman Trail in Zion: The basics

The sun lights up the peaks of Zion Canyon early in the morning
Watchman is a gorgeous Zion sunrise hike option.

Length: 3.1 miles

Elevation gain: 650 feet

Difficulty: Moderate

Time needed: 1.5-2.5 hours

Sunrise time: Check the local sunrise time here. I recommend starting your hike an hour before sunrise.

How to reach the Watchman Trailhead

The hike begins from the Zion Canyon Visitor Center in Springdale, Utah.
Crossing the Visitor Center parking lot on the way to the trailhead.

One of the biggest reasons to hike the Watchman Trail is because you don’t need to deal with the Zion Shuttle, its egregiously long lines, and its ever-changing reservation systems. You can start this hike right from the Visitor Center in Springdale!

If you plan to hike for sunrise, you’ll probably be able to get parking in the Visitor Center complex. There’s a chance the lot will be full and you’ll need to use paid street parking right outside the complex — but it was half-empty when I hiked on a busy weekend in May.

Alternatively, if you’re staying in Springdale, you can walk to the trailhead. If you do a sunrise hike to Watchman, you won’t be able to use the Springdale shuttle line — it doesn’t get going until later in the morning.

When you arrive at the Visitor Center, you’ll walk through the pedestrian/bicycle entrance to the park. Then, continue to your left around the outside of the building. You’ll see the shuttle line on your right and a paved footpath alongside it. The footpath leads to an intersection with a large parking area on one side, a campground on the other, and a sandy trail in front of you. This is the Watchman Trailhead.

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The trail is clearly marked with signs from the Visitor Center and at most intersections.

On the trail

The Watchman Hike is one of the top easy hikes in Zion National Park.
The Watchman hike in Zion is fairly easy — there are a few switchbacks, but they’re not steep.

The hike begins with a stroll along the Virgin River. You can go down to the water in a few places — be sure to use the marked paths and don’t cut your own route through the sand, as you can easily damage the soil and plant life on the surface. In 2021, Zion National Park has been struggling with toxic cyanobacteria blooms, so swimming and drinking the river water (even if it’s filtered/treated) isn’t safe.

After a quarter mile, you’ll cross a road and hit the proper trail. It starts with a gradual climb up the canyon wall. Half a mile in, it steepens to a series of switchbacks.

If you’re here early in the morning, the light hits the red rocks across from you and makes them look like they’re on fire. The effect is especially brilliant a few minutes after sunrise.

Finally, once you reach the top of the canyon wall, it’s a short, flat stroll to the overlook. You can see all the way to La Verkin in front of you. Canyon walls tower on both sides. It’s red rocks all around. The light is best shortly after sunrise until an hour after the sun comes up.

You can do a quick loop around Watchman Overlook at the top — follow the clear signs. Social trails abound, but there’s lots of fragile plant life up here so stick to the marked and maintained path.

When you’re done at the summit, return the way you came. You’ll be back in Springdale in time to have brunch!

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How hard is the Watchman hike?

Views from Watchman Overlook.
Views from the Overlook — 1.5 miles from the trailhead.

Overall, I’d rate the Watchman trail on the easier end of moderate. You gain some elevation, and there are switchbacks, but it’s never overly steep. It’s nothing like Angels Landing.

The trail is wide enough for two-way traffic to pass comfortably, except in a few narrow sections. It has a few steep drop-offs, but you can easily stay at least six feet away from the edges. Even if you’re scared of heights this trail isn’t too bad.

The entire hike is beautifully maintained. The path can be a bit slippery from loose sand — you’ll appreciate hiking in good shoes, and trekking poles help.

The hike is doable for families with school-aged children, inexperienced hikers, and hikers with hip/foot/ankle/knee issues. Just take it slow on the switchbacks. It’s not wheelchair-accessible (but the Riverside Walk is a good alternative for wheelchair users).

Is hiking to Watchman Peak worth it?

There are few crowds in Zion at 5:30 am.
If you can go for sunrise, the Watchman Trail is 100% worth it

If you’re looking for an out-of-this-world-beautiful hike in Zion National Park, Watchman Peak probably isn’t it. The views are honestly kind of meh relative to the hikes in Zion Canyon and the backcountry.

But the Watchman hike has a few big things going for it. For one, it’s very easy to get here, which makes it a good option for a sunrise hike. I mean, yes, it would be lovely to watch the sunrise from Angels Landing, but with the shuttle system that’s not super practical. With Watchman, your start time is within your control.

Second, the Watchman Trail is relatively easy. If you’re hiking with a family that spans many ages, or you aren’t quite confident in your ability to do something like the Narrows, it’s a decent alternative.

Third, this hike doesn’t take very long. I started at 5:30 am and was done by 7 am. I had time for a leisurely breakfast, coffee, stroll back to my campsite, and to re-pack all my gear before hiking the entire Narrows trail later in the day. So why not squeeze it in for sunrise or sunset?

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Finally, if you can drag yourself out of bed early enough, Watchman at sunrise is almost completely devoid of crowds. I passed one person on the way up, and shared the summit with one other person (both solo trail runners). It’s really rare to find that kind of solitude in the Zion frontcountry these days. By the time I hiked down it was mobbed going up, though, so it’s not a great mid-day hike.

What to bring when hiking in Zion National Park

Just after sunrise, it's not too hot in the desert.
Always bring plenty of water when hiking in the desert.

This is my obligatory warning to bring a ton of water when you’re hiking in Utah’s deserts.

I know, on paper Watchman looks like a short hike. But you still need to carry at least 1 liter of water per person. Two liters/person would be better, especially if you’re planning a long stop at the top.

Additionally, throw a snack or two in your backpack before heading out. Salty snacks are best, since they help replenish electrolytes. But if you start hiking at 5:30 am to catch sunrise, just go with whatever you’re willing to eat at that hour.

The desert can be surprisingly chilly in the morning, even in summer. You might want a fleece for the beginning of your hike, and if you stop at the summit for awhile. It was 45 degrees on the morning I hiked in May.

Overall, the Watchman Trail may not be the best hike in Zion, but it’s a pleasant trail to hike for sunrise or sunset. You can escape the crowds by going very early, and you can avoid the shuttle altogether. I’d highly recommend sneaking it in on your trip to Utah!

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Looking for a sunrise or sunset hike in Zion National Park? Watchman Trail, which starts in Springdale, is perfect! This easy hike takes you to an overlook where you can see red rock country for miles. It's classic Utah desert, with river views. It's family-friendly -- even young kids can go hiking here. #utah #travel

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1 year ago

This is amazing. I definitely have to do this when I finally get to Zion. Avoiding too many people, and a cooler time of day to hike are two of the biggest sellers of this for me. Plus how beautiful it looks. I’ve done a couple of sunrise hikes before and despite the fact that it’s not fun to get up super early, it always ends up feeling the best when you get there and experience it

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